Akira

Kaneda aims a rifle in Akira

“What if there were some mistake and the progression went wrong and something like an amoeba was given power like a human’s?”

I wouldn’t describe myself as an anime fan. I like some of the better movies and series, but there’s a lot of the genre I don’t particularly enjoy. The few other anime on this list, I’ve described as being different than your typical anime—full of rich drama and characters that will appeal to movie-watchers who wouldn’t normally get into anime. Akira, on the other hand, is pretty much exactly what you’d expect from an anime: a psychic guy attacks a futuristic city and it’s up to a teenage boy to stop him. This seminal anime film is written and directed by Katsuhiro Ôtomo (Steamboy, Mushi Shi: The Movie), and the fact that this feels like a lot of other anime is a testament to how influential it was in 1988, before the typical anime really existed. This film was huge in Japan, and it opened the door to the Western world for anime, where the genre had previously gone largely unnoticed. Is it good? Well, yes, it’s very good. It’s got a great sci-fi plot, a gritty dystopian setting, and action that’s entertaining without being so over-the-top that it’s ridiculous. It feels a bit like a cross between an action movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and 1984. Again, I wouldn’t describe myself as an anime fan, but this is one of the best movies the genre has to offer, and it’s endured as a classic for a reason.

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Ex Machina

Ava investigates one of her alternate faces in Ex Machina

“Do you have someone who switches you off if you don’t perform as you should? … Then why should I?”

If you mixed together Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein with the 1982 film Blade Runner, you might get something kind of like Ex Machina. Written and directed by Alex Garland (his first effort as a director, writer of 28 Days Later and Annihilation) and starring Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson, and Oscar Isaac, this philosophical film is one of the best I’ve seen on artificial intelligence. In true sci-fi fashion, this film is not content to simply explain what AI is—it also asks what it means. But it’s also not content to be a boring discussion of ethics. This is a thriller just as much as it is a philosophical film, and I found it gripping.

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Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Matthew and Elizabeth hide in Invasion of the Body Snatchers

“People are being duplicated. And once it happens to you, you’re part of this… thing. It almost happened to me!”

(Yes, I’m reviewing the 1978 remake, not the 1956 original. Don’t judge me!)

Alien invasion movies were a pretty big thing in classic film. They asked lots of questions: What if they’re good? What if they’re bad? What if they think we’re bad and come to judge us? Invasion of the Body Snatchers, directed by Philip Kaufman (mostly known for writing the Indiana Jones movies) and starring Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams, puts a bit of a different spin on it: what if they’re neither good nor evil, but so different that we can’t coexist? But this is not a boring morality study—this is a tense thriller! It doesn’t take the time to ask and answer a lot of deep questions, as many sci-fi movies do, but it moves quickly and is definitely not boring. If you’re in the mood for a tense and somewhat scary look at an alien invasion, this might be just what you’re looking for.

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Interstellar

Interstellar

“Perhaps we’ve just forgotten that we are still pioneers. And we’ve barely begun. And that our greatest accomplishments cannot be behind us, because our destiny lies above us.”

Ask someone today to list off famous sci-fi movies and you’ll get an eclectic list: Star Wars, Alien, E.T., Avatar, and many more. Science fiction was, at one point, an interesting but rather dry genre. Thematically, it was an exploration of the spirit and ethics of science—it provides answers, but it also provides questions, and those questions often end up being just as important as the answers. Classic sci-fi movies like 2001 and Planet of the Apes asked questions more than they provided answers, and that was the beauty of them. Soon, the lines blurred and sci-fi movies became more about incorporating scientific solutions into fast-moving, genre-mixing plots than asking questions.

In 2014, Interstellar brought sci-fi back to its roots. Directed by Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight, Inception) and starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, and Jessica Chastain, this is a movie that uses the answers we have to uncover greater questions. It invokes a sense of wonder, even though it doesn’t answer all (or even most) of the questions it raises. But unlike classic sci-fi films, Interstellar is filled with suspense, drama, and plot twists that don’t detract from the traditional sci-fi elements. It’s a great modern take on classic sci-fi and there aren’t many movies like this being made today.

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Aliens

Aliens

“My mommy always said there were no monsters—no real ones—but there are.”

It’s rare that a sequel surpasses the original. Terminator 2 and The Dark Knight come to mind. I’m actually pretty new to the Alien franchise, but, after watching the second installment, I believe Aliens fits that bill too. Alien was a brilliant movie, but the sequel Aliens was phenomenal. Directed by James Cameron (Terminator 2, Avatar) and starring Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, and Paul Reiser, this is an action-packed sci-fi thriller that maintains the depth and suspense of the original but brings the energy up to the highest frenetic levels.

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Alien

Alien (1979)

“You still don’t understand what you’re dealing with, do you? The perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.”

The sci-fi genre has produced some brilliant movies; but for a long time, it failed to produce one thing: heightened suspense. Sci-fi movies made you think, but they rarely got your heart racing. Alien, directed by Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Gladiator) and starring Sigourney Weaver and John Hurt, changed the genre. With a tagline like, “In space, no one can hear you scream,” you know you’re in for a wild ride. It’s not just a great sci-fi suspense movie—it’s probably one of the best suspense movies ever made. It doesn’t skimp on the science fiction, but this movie is downright terrifying, and it does it without resorting to cheap jump scares or excessive gore. Though often imitated, this is a movie that stands up very well today and earns its spot on the watch list of any serious cinema fan.

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Terminator 2: Judgment Day

Terminator 2

“Come with me if you want to live.”

“Best action movie of all time” is a hotly-debated title, but it would be hard to argue that Terminator 2: Judgment Day is not in the top three. Directed by James Cameron (Aliens, Avatar) and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton, this follow-up to the competent 1984 original was an ambitious endeavor. When it was made, it was the most expensive film in history, with a budget over ten times its predecessor. And it paid off in a big way. It made back double its enormous production budget and held the world record for highest opening-weekend gross of an R-rated film until 2003. This was the first sequel to receive and Academy Award when the previous installment had not even gotten a nomination, and it’s one of the most iconic and memorable action movies ever made.

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Jurassic Park

Jurassic Park

“John, if The Pirates of the Caribbean breaks down, the pirates don’t eat the tourists.”

It’s hard to think of a 90s movie more iconic than Jurassic Park. Directed by the legendary Steven Spielberg (E.T., Jaws) and starring Sam Neill, Laura Dern, and Jeff Goldblum, this is a movie that captivated everyone who saw it in theaters. Like all great sci-fi movies, it sparked our imagination for what science could do while also reminding us of the importance of ethics. It has all of the classic sci-fi qualifications along with a thrilling plot, great special effects, and a better original score than most sci-fi films. And it’s just as impressive today as it was when it came out 24 years ago.

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Metropolis

Metropolis

“The mediator between the head and the hands must be the heart.”

Tracing a genre of art to an original source can be murky, but the 1927 film Metropolis was definitely the first real sci-fi movie. Directed by Expressionist Austrian-German director Fritz Lang (M, Fury), Metropolis wrote the formula that would be followed for years to come. Being 90 years old, there are technical and artistic aspects of the movie that don’t hold up well; but the message and style of the movie, as well as its historic significance, merit viewings even today.

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2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey

“This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.”

2001: A Space Odyssey is a masterpiece of cinema. Directed by Stanley Kubrick (The Shining, A Clockwork Orange), this 1968 film is widely regarded as one of the most influential science fiction films of all time. That said, it helps to have appropriate expectations for this film. If you’re expecting a gripping plot or a coherent message, you’re going to have a bad time. 2001: A Space Odyssey is more like a trip to an abstract art museum than a trip to the movies: it’s beautiful and stimulating, but it’s ultimately up to you to imply meaning based on your personal interpretation. Kubrick himself has refused to offer any explanation for the baffling ending, and, although many have put forth theories, none have completely resolved all of the mysteries presented here.

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